A Little Bit of History (1)

A LITTLE BIT OF HISTORY

Southfields has a fascinating history. Putney, Roehampton and Wimbledon were all once part of Earl Spencer’s Wimbledon Park Estate, consisting of undeveloped fields, woodland and park. The Spencers stared to run out of money by the 1830s so in due course a large amount of land was sold to developer John Augustus Beaumont (who has two roads named after him). Several large houses were built along Park Side, Victoria Drive and Albert Road (as it then was). Park Side became home to mansions like Tudor Lodge, Crakehall Villa, Richmond House and Argyle Lodge. Only Fairlawns (home to Queen Victoria’s dentist Edwin Saunders) and Elmley House remain today, though the names of others like Albemarle, Spencer House and Chivelston live on in later developments (as do the names of Argyle Lodge in the Argyle Estate, and Belmont House which stood where the Southlands Estate, including Belmont Mews, is now). So, while the Grid (including Gartmoor, Southdean and Kingscliffe Gardens) was well developed by the 1910s, what is now West Hill Ward was characterised by open fields and large mansion houses until after the Second World War.

For example, the present Allenswood on the Wimbledon Park Estate is not the first building with that name to occupy the site. A large house, built initially for a barrister, became the home of a famous ‘finishing school’ for young women. The Allenswood Academy had originally been founded in 1864 in Paris by Mlle Marie Souvestre (1830-1905) and then recreated on Albert Road (as it was until 1936). The young ladies were taught exclusively in French and given a good grounding in the arts. English, French, German, Italian and music were taught along with domestic science, dancing and fencing. The girls wore long skirts (usually black), white ruffled blouses, a striped school tie and boaters when outside. They made their own beds (not such a big deal today but rare in those days!), had to empty their plates at every meal and went out on to the Common every day after breakfast, whatever the weather, before returning for classes. After lunch they had to lie on the floor for an hour and a half and fix their minds on a single thought which would then be discussed at teatime. They had exercise every afternoon, then more classes. A bell rang to tell them to dress for dinner. After that, Mlle Souvestre would embrace those most favoured, kiss others and extend her hand graciously to the rest.

Many celebrated families used the school, with names like Lloyd George, Chamberlain, Strachey and Webb. However, perhaps the most famous pupil was Eleanor Roosevelt, niece of US President Theodore Roosevelt (who was to be in office from 1901 to 1909). At the age of 15 (in 1899) she started a three-year stay at the school. In due course she became First Lady to President Franklin D. Roosevelt (a distant cousin), whom she married in 1905 (and who had visited her during her time at Allenswood). After FDR’s death in office in 1945 (after twelve years in post) she was to continue as an international author, speaker, politician and activist, working to enhance the status of women. She was also a keen supporter of the United Nations and became a delegate there from 1945 until 1952, chairing  the committee that drafted and approved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. FDR’s successor President Harry S. Truman called her the “First Lady of the World”. Eleanor was by all accounts a model pupil and certainly one of Mlle Souvestre’s favourites but she did find some of the rules a bit odd. In particular she wasn’t impressed that students were only permitted three baths a week, none longer than ten minutes; that they had to confess upon entering the dining hall if they had uttered an English word during the day; and they were subject to the punishment of ‘bed-stripping’, having the entire contents of their dresser dumped on their bed if they misbehaved. Sadly Mlle Souvestre was to die just two weeks after the Roosevelts got married. The Academy continued under her deputy, Pauline Samia, alongside Florence Boyce, and subsequently Jeanne Dozat and then Enid Michell until it closed in the early 1950s.

There were also large houses on Albert Road called Ambleside (more or less where the current block of the same name stands) and Fernwood, which stood at the present location of Winterfold Close. Lydney and Peterstow Closes are built on land once occupied by another large house, Oaklands, hence the name of the estate. The house become home to St Gabriel’s College School of Languages. Florys Court was once the site of another house named simply Florys, while Struan was found where the Convent now stands.

ACKROYDON AND EDGECOMBE HALL

The Ackroydon Estate now covers an area from Princes Way around Windlesham Grove as far as Inner Park Road. The properties east of Victoria Drive are known as the Ackroydon East, those between Victoria Drive and IPR as the Ackroydon West.

Ackroydon, which lay more or less between where Wainford Close is today, was a grand house built in the early 20th century in the grounds of an older mansion, The Grove, which occupied land around where Admirals Court is now found. Above left is a view of the house from the Sunken Garden, which still survives as a public space behind the Ackroydon Hall on Montfort Place; below is the hall of the house (the first ‘Ackroydon Hall’!). The house was built for shipowner James Cairns, whose family came from Tyneside – his uncle, Thomas, was Liberal MP for Newcastle from 1906 to 1908 – by the short-lived architectural firm of Dunn, Watson and Curtis Green. The house was demolished after the Second World War and the Ackroydon Estate built between 1950 and 1953.

Edgecombe Hall was grander still, the house and its grounds covering an area stretching from the border of the orchards of the Royal Hospital and Home (roughly where Linstead Way and Bell Drive are today) all way down Beaumont Road to Augustus Road and also down ‘Leg of Mutton Hill’ to Sutherland Grove. The 1913 Ordnance Survey map shows no Whitlock Drive, Combemartin Road (though there was a footpath following its course), Skeena Hill or Girdwood Road. The Hall was probably built in the late 1850s for one Thomas Gabriel (1811-1891) who was Lord Mayor of London in 1866/7 and subsequently Baronet Gabriel of Edgecombe Hall in the County of Surrey – his great great great nephew is Peter Gabriel of Genesis fame (for those of you of my generation!). The Hall had large lakes where the Whitlock Drive pond is today, designed by celebrated Victorian and Edwardian landscape gardeners, James Pulham and Son.

Wandsworth once had a fine reputation for helping refugees. In June 1915 a garden party was held in the grounds of Edgecombe Hall on behalf of Belgian refugees from the First World War who had been accepted into the Borough. It was opened by HRH the Princess Henriette, Duchesse de Vendôme, sister of Belgium’s King Albert: she lived at Belmont on Wimbledon Park Side (where Chapman Square now stands). Tea was available, as were light refreshments ‘including Fruit Salads Ices, Strawberries and Cream, Lemonade, Ginger Beer, Coffee, Sandwiches &c’. Sadly, no sooner had the Duchess arrived than there was a clap of thunder and torrential rain started and continued for the rest of the afternoon. Nonetheless most of the entertainments carried on regardless. The girls from Putney County Secondary School on West Hill (now a block of flats called Mayfield) had to march over in the rain but reportedly gave a fine musical performance (luckily in the tent). One Winifred Crewe did particularly well in the sports, coming second in the 100 yards and the skipping race and first in both the egg & spoon and potato races. Edgecombe Hall’s owners, Mr and Mrs Richard Agar, opened the house up as well as the grounds and the Duchess took shelter there. The War was to be less kind to Private Leonard William Booker of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, who lived with his sister Ada at the Lodge of Edgecombe Hall: he was killed in action in Flanders in August 2017.